One of the most important factors guiding a reader’s book choice is genre. From library and bookstore shelves to online menus, well-defined genre categories separate books by their ideas and themes into collections that readers can use to discover new, exciting titles that fit their tastes.
Genre provides an organized space for books to find their audience but the system isn’t perfect. What happens when a book is the child of two different genres? Three? How do the authors of this cross-genre fiction get their books into our hot little hands when shelf placement becomes anything but straightforward?
We asked a select group of authors about their experiences writing, pitching and marketing cross-genre work to shed some light on the challenges and strategies involved in getting their stories out to the masses. Let’s meet K.M. Alexander, Virginia King, Anthony Lodge, K.T. Lee, Suzy Howlett, Rae Stoltenkamp, Rohan Quine and Rob Johnson.
(N.B. You can click through on the images below to read more about each author.)
Was writing a cross-genre book a conscious choice for you, or did it develop organically?
K.T.: Writing a cross-genre book snuck up on me. Like most writers, I’m an avid reader. I read books from a number of different genres, from thriller to YA to fantasy and everything in between. My book began as an idea about an engineering professor caught in the middle of international intrigue. However, as the story developed, I realized the book I’d been writing was really a cross between a cozy mystery and a thriller with a dash of sweet romance. The thematic elements of the story were very much in the thriller category, but the character interactions and lighter hand with graphic details made the book feel more like a cozy mystery. When I finished the book, I was very happy with what I had, but it didn’t fit neatly into any one category.
Suzy: It’s difficult to be sure. Our book is co-written (we are married) and began as an improvised game between us while walking on the island of Sark, with pastiche and humour as the strongest elements. We use the rather well-known characters Julian, Dick, Anne and George Kirrin—from the famous children’s adventure series of the 1950s—and developed our novel from a series of acted-out situations they might face as forty-somethings with families of their own. It grew into a fully-fledged novel over several years, retaining elements of pastiche, but by deciding to set it in 1979, as Thatcher was being elected, it picked up a historical aspect. We made it a mystery and a romance for good measure, as that was irresistible.
Rohan: A writer can have many different motivations for writing. All can be effective as drivers. My only conscious choice, and what drives me when writing a novel or novella, is the mission to create something that’s explosively and irreducibly itself … at no time in those three years did I think about which genre/category boxes the novel would find itself ticking, in future phases of the process.
Rae: I didn’t realise I’d written a cross-genre book until it was done and I was trying to fit it into the tight parameters agents/publishers require. At this point I saw that I’d created a hybrid. It is probably due to the fact I read widely—classics, Sci-Fi, fantasy, children’s literature—and also watch a great deal of TV series and love a good film. Unwittingly I tried to incorporate as many of these into my first book as possible. Once the first book was done, I realised it was the only way in which I wanted to write.
Rob: Quest for the Holey Snail is probably the most cross-genre of the four books I’ve published so far in that it’s difficult to categorise, other than to say it’s a comedy time-travel police procedural (or something like that!). The time-travel and crime strands of the plot are ostensibly separate, given that they are covered in alternate chapters, but the link between the two becomes clear towards the end of the book. I hadn’t consciously set out to write a cross-genre book, but having written two comedy thrillers before this novel, I then read Robert Rankin’s The Book of Ultimate Truths and found it incredibly liberating in terms of how it’s possible to break many of the ‘rules’ of writing. Quest for the Holey Snail pretty much evolved from there.
What differences do you see between including elements from multiple genres in a story and writing a truly cross-genre book?
Virginia: A book with a main discernible genre and a sprinkling of other cross-genre elements has certain tropes that fulfill reader expectations. A truly cross-genre book deviates wildly from reader expectations, and this can delight some readers and turn off others who are expecting more of what they’re used to.
Rohan: Compared with writing a truly cross-genre book, I suppose ‘including elements from multiple genres’ sounds as if the inclusion were a more deliberate incorporation of them as genre elements. Perhaps the latter phrase also sounds, or feels, as if the elements were a little less integral to the substance of the vision being expressed—less like agitations from the retinal cells of the author’s vision, than like stylings adopted for more external reasons.
K.M.: The difference is influence—but, let me explain. Within the story, the elements of one genre—say fantasy—needs to profoundly influence the elements of another genre, such as science fiction. (Star Wars does this well.) Both need to be recognized as equal and each need to influence the other. This is different than works that feature little nods towards other genres but don’t embrace them to the point where they have a profound impact on a story/plot/characters/setting.
Rae: For me, writing a cross-genre book is about absorbing the essential elements of different favourite genres so they blend seamlessly into a whole new genre which crosses boundaries to create a hybrid, able to stand alone against the tide.
What attitudes towards, and feedback about, cross-genre fiction have you experienced from those within the traditional publishing industry?
K.M.: When I was shopping my manuscripts, most traditional publishers and agents seemed wary. That said, I do believe it’s changing. But change has been slow. More and more agents and publishers are willing to take a bit of a risk with properties that would have been deemed too ‘out there’ 10 or 15 years ago.
Anthony: Possibly the words which best summarise feedback and attitudes are: interest, enthusiasm, bemusement, frustration and rejection, though not necessarily in that order. The fundamental problem with cross-genre fiction is that, because it doesn’t fit an easily marketable category, it is likely to be dismissed as not being commercial enough. It’s easier for sales and marketing departments, not to forget booksellers and libraries, if it fits neatly into a predetermined genre, regardless of the author’s intentions.
K.T.: When I first began to think about publishing my books, I was leaning towards releasing the series as an independent author because it was such a good fit with the technical and independent sides of my personality. After spending some time trying to figure out the best path for my book, I signed up for coaching with a literary agent. She actually encouraged me to take the plunge into self-publishing. I’m glad I went for it! I hope that the books continue to resonate with readers because I enjoy writing them!
Virginia: Although my first book was well-written, with developmental input from a quality editor and representation from a well-known agent, the first big-five publisher who loved it hit a wall when it went to her marketing department. They said its psychic elements pushed it out of the mystery genre. This book went on to be rejected by more boutique publishers who couldn’t see where it would fit on their lists. I researched the one new e-book-only publisher who was interested in it, yet I didn’t like what they were publishing so I decided to self-publish.
What challenges can an author expect when marketing a cross-genre book to readers or pitching to agents and/or publishers?
K.T.: You must have the patience to spend time finding your audience for a cross-genre novel. Most book bloggers and advertisers ask you what category your book is in. There usually isn’t an ‘it’s complicated’ option. The best way we can communicate the multiple genres of a book is by selecting multiple book categories. I’ve had to do some work through advertising to both cozy and thriller readers to find my audience. I have been marketing a free prequel novella as a way for readers to see if they connect with my work before buying the series—and this has helped me find new readers.
Rob: As far as marketing a cross-genre book is concerned, one of the main difficulties is that promotion sites usually allow you to list your book in only one or two categories. There certainly aren’t any categories for ‘cross-genre’ in their list of available options, although this is understandable since the number of possible permutations would be almost limitless. Even so, targeting potential readers is much trickier than if you’re promoting a single-genre book.
K.M.: Finding your market is tough—especially if you’re deciding to go indie with your work. But it’s entirely doable. My advice would be to seek a ‘close-enough’ genre as a base and work from there. This goes for agents and editors as well; it’s easier to have a starting point and then build. For me, my books are urban fantasy-adjacent, so it’s easy to pitch them as ‘Lovecraftian Urban Fantasy’. But, in truth, they are much more. Throwing everything at a potential reader can be overwhelming and for some, off-putting. Start at a place they’ll understand and then let them discover the nuance as you either talk through it or, better yet, as they read. I’ve yet to have a reader upset that my book was more than urban fantasy—if anything, most come away finding it interesting or refreshing.
Suzy: We had worries from agents who felt our book was commercial, and very filmic, but were unsure whether it might breach copyright laws (it doesn’t). The difficulty as to where to place it in terms of genre was mentioned by some, and bookshops tend to place it with the spoof Famous Five books (Five on Brexit Island etc). It is quite different, being a full-length and satisfying novel, but I think it is quite a handy placement nevertheless.
Anthony: It seems to me that there are two main challenges. First, because a cross-genre book doesn’t easily fit into accepted categories, the pitch to a publisher may be difficult. The story and/or the standard of writing will probably need to be exceptionally good or unusual to succeed with a well-known publisher normally unwilling to take a risk.
Second, and connected to the first, marketing is arguably more important today than two or three generations ago. If a publisher’s decision of whether to accept or reject a book has increasingly shifted from editorial towards sales and marketing, this can only serve to reinforce the existing distinctions between genres and increase the incentive for authors to try to stick clearly to a particular one. Unfortunately, this in turn may stifle creativity and deprive readers of innovative writing if authors feel they must produce a product, not an idea, and must be successful quickly if they are not to be dropped by a publisher. Overall, it’s hard to see how cookie-cutter publishing can contribute to fostering innovation.
As a final question, and a way to add to our own to-read lists, we’d love to know what your favorite cross-genre work of fiction is and why?
Suzy: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a pantheon of god-buddies spilling off the (many) pages into reality, fun, darkness and hope.
Rohan: I’ll choose The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet. The fact that it’s a grand cross between literary fiction and autobiography in no way lessens the alchemical transmutation that Genet uses language to achieve.
Rae: Good Omens without a doubt. I absolutely love its irreverence towards religion but also admire the way in which Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wove humour and outstanding observation of human behaviour into the work.
K.M.: So, I’m going to rely on my old standby, China Miéville’s The Scar. It’s cerebral and engaging. It’s a book about pirates, but with substantial steampunk influences, but at the same time it’s also an urban novel fraught with the politics of a city, and it deals with magic and science and mythology.
Anthony: The book which springs to mind immediately is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: not simply a ‘whodunnit’ or a literary novel, but equally both with a good dose of scholarly work thrown in to enrich the mix.
Virginia: The Quiet Woman by Terence Faherty is an under-recognised supernatural literary mystery which is a quirky travel tale, with poignant psychological musings and much humour.
K.T.: I’ve really enjoyed the Marina Alexander series by C.M. Gleason, which blends a bit of history, action and adventure, and mystery.
Rob: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is possibly one of the earliest examples of a truly cross-genre work, given that it combines fantasy, satire and social commentary, and the first two parts of the four-part series are often read by young children.
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